Surrendering Control: My Perspective as Tandem Bicycle Passenger

By Jody Legg

I am a person who likes being in control and appreciate orderliness, constancy, and safety. That said, you may be wondering how I am dealing with all the uncertainty with Covid-19, and admittedly, at first, adrenaline rushed through me making me nervous. However, as the weeks and now months pass on, I am settling into a new normal that feels acceptable to my controlling Type A personality.

I like structure and routine. Thus, not surprising why I have an affinity towards training plans and goals (McMillan Running and Sufferfest, call out!). I’ve run over 14 marathons successfully and have realized the part I enjoy most is the plan, the training, knowing what’s coming the next day, and progressing towards it. The race itself, well that’s something that I’m not sure I love or hate because the outcome is not always a reflection of how well I trained due to many external factors…that are out of my CONTROL. Weather, illness, logistics….PANDEMIC!

Also apparent to me though, is instead of avoiding the things that “scare” me, contrarily, I will usually jump right in despite my dread, fear and nervousness. There are many instances in my life that surprised me afterward, when I ignored my true terrified feelings, and still dove in proving over and over, I love a challenge. Thus, learning to ski as an adult, mountain bike race, run marathons, change careers, were each intimidating at first, but rewarding afterward.

I feel best when I know what is coming next and have planned and prepared accordingly. So when my husband, Emery, decided for our 10 year anniversary to surprise me with a Tandem Bicycle (thank you Tandem Cycle Works!), I knew I would be facing the control freak in myself head on, and I felt ill and exhilarated at the same time.

We owned a tandem bike in the past and ride considerably well together compared to many couples, who say they will never attempt a tandem bike, or did, and nearly divorced! Nevertheless, that was years ago, and I was not expecting there would be another one in our near future. The memories of flying down Lookout Mountain with my eyes closed on the back of our old tandem still make me proud and amazed that I didn’t faint and fall off the bike. I wasn’t sure I was ready to commit again to that experience.

Emery is an excellent cyclist, raced bikes for most of his life, ran a bike shop, and is very conscious of following safe cycling rules on and off the road. He certainly does not want to get hurt, or hurt anyone else while riding his bike. I know he would keep me and us safe at all costs. But when it comes to being the passenger on the back of a tandem bike, all common sense and trust in me flies away in the wind, like the facemask that I yanked off yesterday while suffocating on a run. However, not wanting to disappointment him or myself, we set out again, together, on the sleek black beauty tandem bicycle.

Many people don’t realize on a tandem bike, that the passenger in the back (also known as stoker or rear admiral) has to pedal at the same cadence as the front rider (also known as captain or pilot). There is no coasting for either rider if both are not coasting. Likewise, because

my “captain’s” power and cadence are at a much higher level than mine are, it can be difficult to “keep up” and offer much assistance, but I wear myself out trying! The captain also is in sole control of braking and gears while the passenger just accepts what comes (not a virtue I readily possess), often pleading in my head for an easier gear change or yes, please, brakes to slow down!

Often during our rides, I think about how we communicate with each other on the tandem and have many internal conversations in my head while we ride. Talking and hearing are a challenge with the wind in our ears and with me talking to the back of his head; what I say and what he hears are often not clear. For instance last weekend while riding, we were to make a sharp left turn while traffic was nearing in the oncoming lane. Worried, I said, “Dont go”! To my surprise, he put the pedal to the metal, and made the turn sharp and swift! Once safely across, I expressed my irritation! He said he only heard me say, “Go” and missed the “Dont”, so unintentional misunderstanding, and on we rode while I pondered how to be more clear next time.

For me, the most difficult skill on the tandem is standing up together to ride up hill. This truly takes coordination that I do not always have when he suddenly stands without warning. Honestly, I wonder if I could fall right off the bike while he keeps on pedaling uphill. This hasn’t happened yet, and we’ve agreed he will warn me when he’s ready to stand, so that I can too. See what I mean about developing communication skills?

Sharp curves and speed are what I fear most riding a bike, alone or on a tandem. Sharp curves and speed simultaneously, well I need counseling to deal with that as it terrifies me. Emery is a natural with both, due to all of the racing he’s done through his life, pedaling through curves in criterium races at over 30 mph, nearing a 45-degree angle that I can barely watch, let alone be the helpless participant of on the back of the tandem bike. Times like these are when I literally feel physical and mental control leaving my body and just have to surrender to it. This lesson I keep learning on every ride, and proudly, I am improving.

Sometimes it seems like we are performing in the circus, mostly when riding through our neighborhood or by parks. The joy and awe in kids’ faces when they see two people on a bike riding by them, makes us happy too. Children wave, we wave, and parents wave, saying “look at the family bike”!

As much as I’ve mentioned the lessons learned while tandem bike riding are a good deal about submitting control to someone else, there are plenty of moments of pure joy that come frequently, the more we ride the tandem. When we truly ride in sync, when the weather is perfect, cycling a route through the beautiful areas in Colorado where the majestic mountains are looming and flowers blooming, it feels like we are floating over the hills, gliding through curves, and powering up and over mountains, sailing down the other side. These are the days I am reminded that life is short, live it to the fullest, abandon worries, and enjoy the ride.

One thought on “Surrendering Control: My Perspective as Tandem Bicycle Passenger

  1. Great story! Riding tandems requires trust and communication. I’m a tandem captain and my wife is a rockstar stoker.

    Tandems are not divorce machines, more accurate description is relationship accelerators!

    If you want to try something even more crazy, you need to ride tandem off-road!

    One last note, you can try standing individually on a climb. Also takes communication /coordination, but is another way to get through steep pitches and not spin out of your gear too fast like you might when both standing together.

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